General Media / innovation / Multimedia views

The Guardian’s ‘Firestorm’: Some lessons from the latest ‘Snowfall’

Guardian Firestorm

The Guardian released an interactive story this week that again shows how multimedia storytelling can be done with HTML5, JavaScript and CSS3 outside the traditional templated formula for most news stories. I’d encourage you to look at Firestorm, then read this behind-the-scenes story at How the Guardian built multimedia interactive Firestorm.

And then, some things I’m noticing about these types of “break-out” multimedia interactives.

  1. They are time-intensive.
    The firestorm that was the genesis of this story happened on Jan. 4, 2013. It took almost 5 months of work by a full team of reporters, designers, and photojournalists before the project was released. The Guardian focused a good amount of journalism resources into reporting the aftermath of the dramatic photo that inspired the reporting.
  2. Multimedia/Interactive planning starts at the beginning.
    After the germ of an idea developed, you need to start thinking about how the multimedia will work in the whole piece.
  3. They require deep collaboration between editorial and technology teams.
    Print, photos and video had to be massaged to work well in the interactive. That requires collaboration between word people, visual people, and technical people, which adds to the time element. As Guardian Special Projects Editor Francesca Panetta said in the article: “From all the interactive stuff we’ve done, every single project, I’ve recognized that you need to be doing that very, very early on in the process because you can’t prejudge until you see things in context. And then you have to cut, re-cut and re-imagine.”
  4. The story isn’t ‘contained’ in the multimedia.
    Like “Snowfall,” Firestorm has an accompanying e-book, which includes more background detail, as well as photos and videos. The producers estimated that they used 1/3 of the words from the e-pub in the interactive. So people who purchase the e-pub are getting ‘more’ of the story.
  5. There was usability testing.
    Not only did the Guardian do usability testing on the length of the story, but also to find a way to “control” how the user moved through the story. “I just felt that not many people want to engage with an online story for more than half an hour,” Panetta said. “We did some user testing asking people how long they wanted an experience to be and watching how they interacted with it.”
  6. There is a good amount of technical skill required for the interactive.
    Making an interactive story like Firestorm or Snowfall isn’t easy. You need web designers who are familiar with HTML5/CSS3 and JavaScript libraries that make these story formats possible.

Having said all that, is it possible for a college media outlet to pull off a Snowfall/Firestorm? Hell yes! With these caveats:

Planning: College news outlets don’t have the resources (human or financial) to devote to a Snowfall/Firestorm. But they do plan to cover big events around campus. With the proper planning, a multimedia interactive like this could be worked into the workflow around a Greek Week, or a Homecoming, or something significant on campus.

Programming: It’s a good chance you don’t have anyone on staff who can program this project. Again, it might be time to cast about around campus for some “contract work” CS majors, or art interactive design majors to help.

Usability testing: Nothing is worse from a user’s perspective than trying to wade through a site that looks cool but doesn’t perform: Buttons aren’t labeled, navigation is confusing, there are too many options, etc. Rarely do we perform usability tests for college news sites, but with a project like this, it’s worth the effort, even if you have to get some advice from the CS department again.

Long-form journalism: None of these projects are normal news-cycle stories. You will need to identify your strongest writers, photojournalists and web editors to contribute to this type of project, and check frequently on the progression of the whole project.